Maritain, Raïssa (1883–1960)

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Maritain, Raïssa (1883–1960)

Russian-born French writer, wife and collaborator of the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who played a key role with her husband in the revival of Catholic intellectual life and advocated for a modern rekindling of the thoughts of the medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas . Name variations: Raissa Maritain; Raïssa Oumancoff, Oumançoff, Oumansov, or Oumansoff. Born Raïssa Oumansov in Rostov on the Don, Russia, on September 12, 1883; died in Paris, France, on November 4, 1960; daughter of Ilia Oumansoff and Issia Oumansoffa; sister of Véra Oumansoff (spelled VeraOumancoff in entry on Gwen John ; also seen as Oumançoff, d. 1959); married Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), on November 26, 1904.

In tsarist Russia during 1883, Raïssa Oumansoff was the first daughter born to a moderately successful Jewish tailor named Ilia Oumansoff. She lived in the river port of Rostov on the Don until age three, when her family moved to the Ukrainian port of Maripol. There, in a fiercely anti-Semitic Russian Empire, she met with an unusual opportunity for a Jewish girl of her day, namely the chance to study in a state school. In 1893, Raïssa, along with her mother Issia Oumansoffa and younger sister Véra Oumansoff , emigrated to Paris; Ilia had moved there some time before to find a refuge for his family from the hatred and pogroms of the tsar's realm. The highly intelligent Raïssa quickly mastered the French language, developed a familiarity with French cultural values and traditions, and became an ardent Francophile. In a family which prized educational achievement, she easily earned her baccalaureate degree and at age 17 began her studies at the Sorbonne.

A serious young woman, she embarked upon her higher education hoping to find nothing less than convincing answers to the question of why she and other mortals were alive, "a justification for existence." Convinced that the answer was to be found in the natural sciences, she endeavored to master them. It quickly became apparent to Raïssa, however, that for all of the facts that the modern scientific disciplines had assembled, deeper truths that might illuminate the purpose of life continued to elude the great minds of science. In 1900, she met a fellow student at the Sorbonne who was engaged in a similar quest. Equally obsessed in his search for truth, Jacques Maritain came from a distinguished Protestant family of liberal and secular views. Jacques, the son of a prosperous lawyer, was the grandson on his mother's side of Jules Favre, one of the founders of the French Third Republic (created in 1870). By the time he began studying at the Sorbonne, Jacques no longer found a convincing explanation of the meaning of life in the rationalism of his parents.

Raïssa and Jacques fell in love soon after they met, but their mutual affection did not solve the problem that plagued them. Science and reason no longer provided answers, and religious doctrines too brought no solace. For Raïssa, the Judaism of her parents was outmoded and irrelevant in regard to representing either a coherent religious or cultural tradition. For Jacques, liberal Protestantism failed to answer any of the big questions that plagued him. Living in a state of profound spiritual disarray, for a time the couple contemplated suicide, making a pact in the Jardin des Plantes to end their lives. They were prevented from carrying out this act by attending, and being inspired by, the public lectures of College de France professor Henri Bergson. A highly influential philosopher, Bergson was in the vanguard of the full-blown attack on scientific positivism that was well underway by the last decades of the 19th century. By pointing to a world in which higher metaphysical truths could in fact be discovered by humanity, his subtle and persuasive ideas gave hope to Raïssa and Jacques.

They married on November 26, 1904, and continued their search for a way out of a world they regarded as obsessed with material success and power. By the time of her marriage, it appears likely that Raïssa had already altered her plans of preparing herself for university degree examinations. Whereas Jacques continued to pursue a course of study leading to the agrégation degree (which he would be awarded in 1905), Raïssa would earn no university degree despite the strong encouragement of her parents, her obvious abilities as a student, and a love of learning that had been central to her nature since childhood. Her biographer Judith D. Suther has argued that already at this stage in her life, she had "[i]mperceptibly and without conscious design … cast herself into the traditional ancillary role that until very recently in Western culture has been taken for granted." In a world that Suther has described as being organized around "the encoded misogyny of patriarchal culture," Raïssa Maritain, though intellectually gifted, would remain largely hidden behind the spotlight on her husband.

Raïssa's fragile state of health also played an important role in her life. An illness in the summer of 1904, only months before she married Jacques, had compelled her to abandon all regular work, academic or otherwise, and began a regular pattern of illness and recovery that was to continue for the rest of her life. A number of her statements give credence to the notion that she almost enjoyed these illnesses. She commented on one occasion, "I am ill because illness is salutary for me," and, on another, "I feel the debility of recovery, not of illness." For her entire married life, Raïssa appears to have suffered from lethargy and a general sense of being unwell. In 1906, one of these unidentifiable illnesses left her semi-comatose and prompted a desperate Jacques to pray (for the first time in his adult life) for his wife's recovery. It was not his prayers but rather a medal of Mary the Virgin placed around Raïssa's neck by Jeanne Bloy —the wife of their close friend, the pious and eccentric Catholic novelist and pamphleteer Léon Bloy (1846–1917)—that seems to have revived her. Soon after this incident, encouraged by their spiritual mentor Bloy, Raïssa and Jacques were secretly baptized, along with Raïssa's sister Véra, into the Roman Catholic faith on June 11, 1906, at Saint-Jean-l'Evangéliste in Montmartre. The eccentric Léon Bloy served as godfather to all three converts.

For the next two years after her conversion, Raïssa's vocation as a Catholic contemplative emerged as she spent her days in study and prayer. Her sister Véra, who moved in permanently with the couple starting in December 1906, made it possible for Raïssa to avoid virtually all contact with the outside world. Apparently without resentment, Véra took on most of the daily household chores. From this time until her death in 1959, Véra would be a member of a "small flock of three." Jacques, who took considerable time off from his own studies and prayers to attend to household tasks, also took on the psychological burden of consoling both sets of parents on the "loss" of their children to the demands of the Roman Catholic faith. In January 1907, Raïssa was seriously ill, possibly from amoebic enteritis, and received the last rites of the Catholic Church, ecstatically experiencing the sacrament as "a new baptism." She would describe the experience as having flooded her with "grace and peace" and bringing her "the joy of suffering." She soon had what she called a "sudden and undeniable" physical recovery. As a consequence of this event, she offered to God "the total gift of herself" and shortly after began attending daily Mass.

Over the next several years, Raïssa sought ways to deepen her religious devotion, and discussions on this issue took place between her, Jacques, and Véra. In time, the triumvirate discerned a clear path. On September 29, 1912, in the presence of the Dominican priest Humbert Clerissac, who now served as their charismatic spiritual father, the three took vows of celibacy, becoming oblates on that day at St. Paul's Abbey in Oosterhout. Several days later, Jacques and Raïssa offered their marriage to God as a pledge of their future celibate life together. These decisions, as well as Raïssa's recurring mysterious illnesses and mystical spirituality, confounded both the Oumansoff and Maritain families. The estrangement between Jacques and his mother Genevieve Favre (whose marriage to Jacques' father had all but collapsed before her husband committed suicide) was only slowly—and never totally—bridged over the next years. Both Ilia and Issia Oumansoff, however, not only became reconciled to the decisions their daughters had made, but over time became converts themselves to Roman Catholicism.

In 1918, a substantial legacy to Jacques from a dead soldier, Pierre Villard, made it possible for the trio to attain a state close to financial independence. In 1923, Jacques purchased a house in Meudon, a suburb south of Paris, where he would write the many books that would eventually make his name known throughout the world, not only to Roman Catholics and other believing Christians but also to many of the non-religious intellectually engaged citizens of the 20th century.

At around the same time, first Raïssa and then Jacques discovered the vast body of work left behind by St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), the "Prince of Scholastic Philosophers" and "Doctor Angelicus" whose Summa Theologica was intended by its author to be the sum of all known learning. Both Maritains regarded the teachings of Aquinas not as part of a dead medieval world but rather as a living doctrine, the essence of which could be made viable once again for the contemporary world. Known as Thomism, these teachings formed a complex intellectual structure which proclaimed that faith and knowledge could be made totally compatible with one another by use of reason. Aquinas was the thinker who would become the central passion of the couple's lives. They were convinced that the 20th century could learn much from Thomism, a modernized version of which Jacques tirelessly spread to bring the modern age back to spirituality and moral truth. In her own, less philosophical and more personal, fashion, Raïssa also spread the same message.

Although Raïssa was usually ailing and self-absorbed, Jacques admired her and regarded her as both a poet and a mystic. Over the years, while he would describe her as a person who was "in the world but not of it," she wrote a number of books including four volumes of poetry, two volumes of memoirs (We Have Been Friends Together [1942], and Adventures in Grace [1945]), and the posthumously published Notes on the Lord's Prayer (1964) and Raïssa's Journal (1974). One of her books, The Situation of Poetry (1955), was co-authored with her husband. Unlike the many French Catholics who, attracted to Fascism and Nazism, were willing to grant Adolf Hitler the benefit of the doubt because he had been able to destroy Marxism and "restore order" in Germany, Jacques Maritain fully recognized the dangers of authoritarian racism. At least in part, this was based on his realization that a Nazified Europe would gravely endanger the two persons with whom he had shared virtually all of his adult life, Raïssa and Véra. Although both women had been devout Catholics since they were in their 20s, according to Nazi Germany's Nuremberg Laws they remained Jews.

The three arrived in the United States in late December 1939. During World War II, they lived in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, and Jacques was active in Free French politics while also lecturing and writing. In the evenings, the Maritains often gave parties at which philosophical ideas, frequently of a Thomist nature, flowed easily along with the ginger ale. In November 1944, Jacques was appointed France's ambassador to the Vatican, a post he held until 1948. At that point, he resumed his teaching at Princeton University, where the trio continued to live after he achieved emeritus status in 1952. The Maritains maintained their residence at 26 Linden Lane in Princeton, with Jacques, Raïssa, and Véra carrying on in their accustomed patterns for a number of years. Then in 1956, Véra's health began to decline dramatically. She died in December 1959 after enduring much pain and suffering. In a letter dated February 8, 1960, to Anne Green (a writer and sister of the writer Julien Green), Raïssa noted: "There was a special bond, a naive playfulness, a perpetual game between Véra and me. Although she was younger than I, in the game she was my little mother and I was her little child."

Raïssa was deeply shaken by her sister's death and the many months of suffering that preceded it. Robert Speaight, who had written of Raïssa as being frail but also in many ways ageless ("a queen in a fairy tale who had kept the secret of eternal youth"), now noted that within weeks of Véra's death she took on the appearance of "a little old lady with greying hair." It was decided that, to lift her spirits, Jacques and Raïssa would take a trip to France in the summer of 1960. Departing from New York on June 30, they arrived in Paris on July 7. They checked into the Hôtel de Bourgogne, where they had stayed on previous visits. As soon as the couple entered their room, Raïssa collapsed. A stroke was diagnosed, and, after a period of aphasia, her condition began to improve markedly. With therapy, Raïssa regained the ability to speak intelligibly. Brief visits from friends seemed to cheer her up, but in mid-September her condition deteriorated quickly, and she received the last rites of the Catholic Church. She was taken by ambulance to the apartment of close friends, Alexandre and Antoinette Grunelius . Throughout October and early November, no longer being able to eat, she became progressively weaker and died on November 4, 1960. After the funeral Mass, held at St. Clotilde in Paris, her body was taken to the village of Kolbsheim, where she was buried in the local cemetery. After living the last decades of her life in a foreign land which she never fully understood, in death Raïssa Maritain returned to the "terre aimée," the beloved soil of France.

After a brief return to the United States, Jacques was soon back in France. In March 1961, he began to live with Les Petits Freres de Jésus (the Little Brothers of Jesus), a Dominican community in Toulouse, on the banks of the Garonne river in southern France. During the extended sessions of the Second Vatican Council, which took place between October 1962 and December 1965, Jacques Maritain's ideas—and indirectly, those of Raïssa—were often cited during the deliberations. In October 1970, Jacques donned the habit of the Little Brothers of Jesus and in 1971 took his vows. He died in Toulouse on April 28, 1973, and on May 2 was buried at Kolbsheim next to his beloved Raïssa. The intellectual partnership they had shared created a body of ideas that helped to bring the Roman Catholic Church into the world of the 20th century.


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Maritain, Raïssa. Patriarch Tree: Thirty Poems. Translated by a Benedictine of Stanbrook. Worcester, England: Stanbrook Abbey Press, 1965.

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——. "Thomas Merton Translates Raïssa Maritain," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature. Vol. 28, 1976, pp. 181–190.

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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Maritain, Raïssa (1883–1960)

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